There’s an amazing world beneath our pavements. Chris Waywell and Dan Frost explore some magical underground alternatives to surface-level London fun.
We want to talk to you about holes. Big holes. Dark holes. Holes you can enter. Right, finished sniggering? Letís talk holes. When it comes to a hole, this city has shown the rest of the world just what is possible. We’ve dug ’em for trains, we’ve dug ’em for turds, we’ve just always dug ’em. In Rotherhithe in 1843, Isambard Kingdom Brunel bored the world’s first tunnel below a river, then held a pop-up restaurant down there (yep, London did pop-ups even in the nineteenth century), before packing it with shops, fortune-tellers and dancing monkeys. Twenty years later, and desperate for something to moan about instead of cholera, our city opened the first ever underground railway, and we’ve all talked about little else since. In WWII, Londoners threw dances (pop-up, as usual) in giant air-raid shelters while the Blitz pounded the city above to rubble.
Now we’re reoccupying our subterranean spaces. Last week we were all about London’s current frenzy of skyscraper building. This week, we’re going underground as this city reveals its nether regions to all and sundry. Soon you’re going to be able to do pretty much anything down a hole in London, from crazy golf to fine dining. Part of Brunel’s Thames Tunnel is becoming a permanent performance venue ñ though this time without the
dancing monkeys. At Clapham North, some bluesky-thinking (if you can do that in a tunnel) has seen salad growers embrace the insect-free environment and steady temperature of a deep-level air-raid shelter to tend fancy veg for posh chefs. There are plans to repurpose the vaults beneath Camden Market to become a home to restaurants, markets and exhibitions. And the hottest ticket in London’s cinema world? Underground Film Club, which is going to open up a bit of Charing Cross station that’s lurked unused since 1999.
So if you’re after the secret, the eccentric, the creepy, the awe-inspiring and even occasionally the profound, in London in 2015, you really need to get down. Deep down.
The ghostly stop – Aldwych tube station
If you’ve ever seen a film or TV show that features a scene on the tube – and, let’s face it, you have – it was almost certainly filmed at Aldwych. This eerily disused station (once called ‘Strand’) was the only stop on an offshoot of the Piccadilly line, and was taken out of service in 1994. Now it’s a popular shooting location, as well as London’s only publicly accessible ‘ghost station’, with the London Transport Museum and Brit Movie Tours both running occasional visits to it. Mind the g-g-g-apparitions! The lowdown Scenes from the last season of ‘Sherlock’ were shot at Aldwych, as was the twisted video for the Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter’.
Surrey St, WC2R 2NE. Nearest tube: Temple
The home of edgy underground art – The Vaults
In the bowels of Waterloo Station, amid sheets of corrugated metal and tunnels of chipped Victorian brickwork, you’ll find The Vaults, a mainstay for underground gigs, exhibitions and avant-garde theatre. Hop along for Les Enfants Terribles’ immersive reworking of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (until August 30). Probably enough to say that it ain’t much like that Disney version. The lowdown The Vaults open on to Leake Street graffiti tunnel.
Transformed by Banksy’s Cans Festival in 2008, it’s now the city’s biggest legal street-art space.
Leake St, SE1 7NN. Nearest tube: Waterloo.
The horror movie waiting to happen – West Norwood Catacombs
If you thought the catacombs at Highgate were spooky, wait until you visit the labyrinth of tombs and tunnels beneath West Norwood Cemetery. Several thousand coffins – most from the Victorian era – are stacked up along the dark, gloomy passageways. There’s also a room full of children’s coffins which is both heartbreaking and creepy as fuck. You’ll have to become a friend of West Norwood Cemetery to join a tour, but it only costs a fiver for a year. Death comes cheap!
The lowdown: Henry Tate, sugar magnate and founder of the Tate Gallery, is among the famous interred residents at West Norwood.
Norwood Rd, SE27 9JU. West Norwood rail.
The royal wine stash – Berry Bros & Rudd
A visit to the city’s oldest wine cellar is like an archaeological adventure through layers of musty, boozy history. Berry Bros & Rudd was opened by the mysterious Widow Bourne in 1698, and has been getting the royal family pissed and flirty since the reign of George III, so it has a lot to answer for. It hosts tastings and other events on its two subterranean levels, amid the perfectly preserved vintages ñ some more than 200 years old. No, they don’t have a bargain bin.
The lowdown: While in exile, Napoleon III (Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew) plotted his return to France during secret meetings in the BBR cellars.
3 St James’s St, SW1A 1EG. Nearest tube: Green Park.
The hideout where Hitler was thwarted – Churchill War Rooms
It was below Whitehall, sheltered from German bombs beneath a thick layer of concrete known as ‘the slab’, that Churchill led Britain to victory. Now part of the Imperial War Museum, the War Rooms (including the PM’s Transatlantic Telephone Room – providing a direct line to Washington) are immersive in every sense. You’ll leave humming the theme tune to ‘Dadís Army’.
The lowdown: The bunker was just locked up and abandoned in 1945, perfectly preserving all the grisly apparatus of war. And Winston’s pyjamas.
Clive Steps, King Charles St, SW1A 2AQ. Nearest tube: Westminster.
The engineering marvel – Thames Tunnel shaft
The descent into this Victorian tunnel-turned performance space is an eerie experience. A rickety scaffold (soon to be replaced by a snazzy neon-lit staircase) takes you to the bottom of a vast shaft, dug in the 1840s as the entrance to Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s tunnel under the Thames, a world first. It’s now part of the Brunel Museum, who’ve commissioned new play ‘The Eighth Wonder of the World’ (June 8-14) to tell the story of how the father-son engineering pair achieved this feat.
The lowdown: The Brunels did a proper job – the bit of their tunnel between Rotherhithe and Wapping is still used today by the London Overground.
Railway Avenue, SE16 4LF. Rotherhithe Overground.
The rock ‘n’ roll underground – Chislehurst Caves
Dark, moody, atmospheric and easy to get lost in, it’s no wonder that this 22 mile-long network of caves has form when it comes to rocking out. Technically they’re man-made chalk and flint mines, said to date back to the time of the druids (flint was real big back then). They were used to store munitions during WWI, and became a bustling subterranean community in WWII (housing a hospital and a chapel during the Blitz). In the ’60s, they fulfilled their underground destiny and hosted gigs by Pink Floyd, Hendrix and The Stones. Gimme shelter!
The lowdown: Suffolk metallers Cradle Of Filth shot the video for their song ‘Honey and Sulphur’ in the caves. Consider this when you’re visiting them with your nan.
Caveside Close, Old Hill, BR7 5NL. Chislehurst rail. Tours every hour, Wed-Sun, 10am-4pm.
The bar for Blitz spirits – Cahoots
You’re sat in a tube carriage that’s not going anywhere. Familiar, right? Except this one’s from the 1940s, with swing music on the intercom and booze on tap. Housed in a former air-raid shelter just off Carnaby Street, Cahoots is a new and super-popular basement bar (book now to visit before the end of summer) designed to resemble a wartime tube station, complete with costumed staff and a replica train carriage. In short: a great place to get pissed on elaborate cocktails and go nuts on Instagram… just like in the war.
The lowdown: Cocktails at Cahoots are served in thermos flasks, flower vases, milk bottles and even a working clock.
13 Kingly Court, W1B 5PG. Nearest Tube: Oxford Circus.
The WWII safe haven – Clapham South air-raid shelter
Follow in the footsteps of thousands of terrified Londoners as you descend the 180 steps to Clapham South’s deep-level air-raid shelter. Bunk beds once lined the huge vaulted tunnels, housing locals in safety while German bombs rained down above. It’s been closed to the public for decades, but the London Transport Museum recently announced a series of tours. Follow our blog to be the first to know about the next lot.
The lowdown: The shelter was once also home to hundreds of Caribbean immigrants who arrived on the Empire Windrush in 1948.
Balham Hill, SW12 9DU. Nearest tube: Clapham South.
The bawdy banqueting hall – Ivory Vaults
Beneath a historic warehouse in St Katharine Docks are these 200-year-old, grade II-listed cellars – pretty much the perfect place for a bit of old-fashioned debauchery. No wonder they’re home to a raucous medieval-themed banquet, where diners join the court of Henry VIII for a hearty feast. The night then turns into a disco: not exactly a traditional Tudor bash, but at least everyone is off their heads, not missing them.
The lowdown: The warehouse was once part of the Victorian ivory trade. Canít blame Henry VIII for that.
Ivory House, St Katherine Docks, E1W 1BP. Nearest tube: Tower Hill.
Here’s our ranking of London’s top ten underground stations.